In Nigeria, religious divides mask Islamic debate over Sharia

ZARIA, Nigeria, Sept 28 (AFP) -More than 500 people died as marauding bands of Christian and Muslim youths attacked each other in the central Nigerian city of Jos earlier this month.

The flare-up in violence, shaking once again Africa's most populous and arguably most volatile country, came just months after hundreds died in similar violence in Bauchi State and 18 months after more than 2,000 people died in similar clashes in the northern city of Kaduna.

"There is a new breed of fundamentalist appearing, on both sides, Christian and Muslim, and that is one element fuelling the violence," said Professor Abubakar Sadiq, head of the political sciences department at Ahmadu Bello University, the most prestigious university in northern Nigeria.

But, he told AFP in an interview here, "contrary to received opinion, intra-religious and intra-ethnic violence is far higher than inter-ethnic or inter-religious violence in Nigeria."

And, moreover, "the actual level of integration - ethnic and religious – in society at large is far higher than people think". Nigeria, in short, is not about to break up on religious lines.

Talk of a break-up has grown as, over the past two years, the authorities in a dozen, mainly Muslim, northern Nigerian states have introduced some element of the strict Islamic law code known as Sharia.

This has been denounced by the Christian minority in the north and the central government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a Christian, and has been blamed by many for the outbursts of apparently religious violence.

On September 23, Nigeria's Roman Catholic bishops issued a statement declaring the adoption of Islamic law in northern parts of the country a threat to peace and a violation of the rights and freedoms of non-Muslims.

But academics here, such as Sadiq, say that this debate masks the depth of divisions within the Islamic community itself, which makes any break-up much harder to imagine.

In an interview, Ibraheem Zakzaky, a follower of the Shia sect and leader of the radical Islamic Movement, was dismissive of the Islamic law code introduced by the 12 secular, elected state governors.

Zakzaky has for years called for a full Islamic state to be introduced in Nigeria and was jailed for nine years of the past two decades for his statements.

"When they introduced what they call Sharia, they swore in the same judges as before and they just changed the signboard. They ought not to call it Sharia. They have introduced some legal reforms, widening the scope of a Sharia system that already existed in limited form, but it is not real Sharia. You cannot have real Sharia without an Islamic government," he said, sitting in the garden of his home here.

Abubakar Mujahid, leader of a breakaway radical Sunni Islamic grouping, the Ja'amatu Tajidmul Islami or Movement for Islamic Revival, disagreed.

"The coming of the Sharia has given Muslims a new standing in Nigeria," he said, speaking to AFP in a small room off his simple home here.

"For the Islamic person, this is a chance to have what he wants. Maybe the people leading it do not have all the credentials, but Allah brings things the way he wants. And this is what he has decided."

The two Islamic leaders also disagreed on whether the Sharia could ever be spread to the south, where Christians dominate. Zakzaky said yes, since, in his view, Muslims are a majority and therefore could rule. Mujahid said this was not realistic.

Currently, leaders of the 12 states implementing Sharia are meeting in an attempt to harmonize the way they operate it. "That very fact shows how intra-religious debate is alive and how difficult it is to divide Nigeria simply as Muslim/Christian," Sadiq said.